The question of attribution

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

‘So, what are you worth?’

It was an aggressive question to face towards the end of a job interview for my first role after graduating. After all, I had no baseline salary from a previous post; I had little experience; few relevant qualifications; little skill in negotiation.

No worry, I was offered the job. The salary would sound small today, but the role came bundled with free meals and accommodation and came with a ready-made community. I’ve never felt like I had more disposable income, before or since, and I was working on the edge of the Lake District national park. It was a good quality of life: richly rewarding if not conventionally well remunerated.

So, what are we worth? Research studies can aggregate the salaries of everyone working in public relations and communications and find that it’s a fair subset of the UK’s flourishing service sector. But that only shows what we cost the organisations that fund public relations. So let me ask again. What are you worth to your organisation?

How can you defend your role against the charge that it’s a cost to the organisation? We know that comms jobs in the public sector are always open to the criticism that they take resources away from frontline services (police, nurses, firefighters). That they’re ‘soft’ desk jobs that don’t contribute to ‘hard’ frontline work. So how do we turn this around and justify our roles not at a personal level but in terms of adding value and helping our organisations to achieve their societal purpose?

There are two ways to approach this question. Top-down and bottom-up.

The top-down approach requires you to understand the purpose of the organisation. Not as a marketing ploy, but as a fundamental starting point for working out how public relations can add value. It involves thinking through the network of stakeholder relationships and dependencies; it involves questions of legitimacy conferred by government, regulators, customers and society – even future generations. It involves the balancing of competing demands and interests.

At a personal level, you need to know what keeps your CEO awake at night. How can you help them navigate the challenges of their role? Perhaps they’re fretful because of that live interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme the next morning. Then you can help them prepare; you can accompany them to the studio; you can debrief them afterwards. Their success or failure becomes your success or failure.

The single best guide to the challenge of comms leadership, whether you work in the public, private or not-for-profit sectors, is Anne Gregory and Paul Willis’s book Strategic Public Relations Leadership. It’s also a key textbook for the CIPR Professional PR Diploma qualification. It condenses academic thinking and presents it in a way that’s designed to be read by intelligent practitioners (is there any other kind?).

The bottom-up approach requires a granular understanding of what works – and how to count it. You’ve all heard the management mantra ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. It’s always been a sore point for public relations. Think back to the previous paragraphs: I mentioned stakeholder relationships and dependencies. We can count them, I suppose, but why would we? But can we quantify the value of these relationships? Do we know how this value has changed over time? Do we know where we’d like it to be?

I mentioned legitimacy. Like reputation, its absence is easier to chart than its presence. But if we make these concepts the cornerstone of our professional purpose (‘Public relations is about reputation. The result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you,’ according to the CIPR’s definition) then how unprofessional do we look if we can’t attempt to measure the very thing we claim to manage?

It’s a too-familiar lament. That of the comms practitioner wanting to be taken seriously at the top table, but being unprepared to talk the language of purpose and value – and of metrics and measurement.

So let’s take a much more granular view. Let’s discuss attribution. How much of an organisation’s success (as measured by sales, or customer satisfaction, or share price) can be attributed to the work of public relations?

Say your public relations costs a modest £100,000 a year. You helped launch Product X at the start of the year and it has already generated a million pounds in sales. Wouldn’t it be good to claim a ten-fold return on investment (ROI)? It would – but it would also be preposterous. Because how do you isolate public relations effects from the work of the sales and marketing teams? What about other functions such as customer service? And aren’t we downplaying the efforts of the research and development process that produced a product to satisfy customer demand? It’s all a question of attribution. 

One approach that’s in tune with current thinking is to enable closer integration between public relations, marketing, sales and customer service. In part this integration is being forced on us by the need to adjust to the digital media landscape. It makes no sense to argue that your public relations team should not relate to the public because that’s the role of customer services. An enquiry or complaint on Twitter is an opportunity to engage and resolve the problem. It shouldn’t lead to a time-consuming and wasteful turf war that does nothing either for customer service or for public relations.

The other opportunity presented by digital is that we can gain a detailed understanding of the effects of public relations outputs. We can chart the half-life of a tweet through the ripple effect of likes and retweets. This is measurable. We can chart the cause and effect of public relations outputs and website visits. This is quantifiable.

Communicators have always loved words and pictures and the emotional effect they can have. Now communicators are having to love data and the patterns it produces. It’s a question of professional competence.

Writing on the new AMEC website during Measurement Month (#AMECmm), consultant James Crawford warns:

Off the shelf tools that promise to solve your measurement woes are not yet at a point where they are a complete solution. To do measurement properly involves rolling your sleeves up and getting dirty in analytics, data studio, MySQL databases and doing your own research. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is why the [AMEC] framework should be your guide.

A more granular approach to measurement and performance improvement is also part of the syllabus of the CIPR Professional PR Diploma.

As Crawford suggests, we’re not quite there in practice – but we’re conceptually close to proving the value of public relations.

We can track all of the messages, meetings and media that contribute to relationship building; we can assess risks and monitor issues and be alert to imminent and emerging crises; we can track corporate reputation against the competition.

Or, if this sounds too commercially-focused, we can track our outputs and measure them against the behaviour-change outcomes that are the purpose of public relations activity, especially in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

AMEC provides the free tools and frameworks and leads the industry towards an improved understanding of metrics and measurement.

It’s almost a decade on from the first iteration of the Barcelona Principles (including, famously, ‘AVEs are not the Value of Public Relations’). Isn’t it time you caught up?

So what are you worth? What value have you created this month? Just don’t reply by counting your press coverage.